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In the preaching of Jesus the call to conversion is connected immediately with the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God (cf Mt 1:14f.). Thus, when the Church, following Jesus and by virtue of the mission that it has received, calls to conversion and announces the reconciliation that God has worked through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf 2 Cor 5:18-20), it preaches a God who is rich in pity (Eph 2:4) and who is not ashamed to be called the God of men (cf. Heb 11:16).

This is why the message that proclaims God as the true God and announces the coming of his Kingdom is at the same time the message of salvation for man and of the reconciliation of the world. By contrast, sin, which does not acknowledge God as God and which refuses the community with God that God offers man since the beginning of creation, signifies at the same time the alienation of man from the meaning and goal of his human nature as well as the alienation of men from each other. Even when we are not faithful, God nevertheless remains faithful. This is the reason why he concluded a Covenant, first with the people he had chosen; and then, in the fullness of time he renewed this alliance by making Jesus Christ the unique mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). He concluded this New and eternal Covenant through the blood Jesus Christ has shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28).

If this is the center of the Christian message, then the theme of penance and reconciliation concerns the Church, which is, for the world, the sacrament of reconciliation in its entire existence, in its doctrine as well as in its life. On the other hand, one may say also that the loss of the sense of sin, which we see occurring nowadays in many parts of the world, has its roots in the loss of the sense of God and leads subsequently to a loss of the sense of man. For this reason, in preaching conversion and reconciliation, the Church remains faithful both to God and to man; as a steward entrusted with the divine mysteries (cf 1 Cor 4:1) it serves at the same time the salvation of man.

In this context, which is both theological and anthropological, “without separation and confusion”, the International Theological Commission submits its paper, which it was asked to prepare for the Synod of Bishops, 1983. It is not its intention to say everything on the subject, and it does not want to dwell on what is generally known and acknowledged. It is nevertheless of the opinion that it would not meet the expectations that are with reason placed on it, if it would immediately or even exclusively deal with the theological and pastoral problems that are more immediately pressing. It is convinced that penance and reconciliation are of great importance in the encounter with the various cultures in which men live. On the other hand, it also believes that there is an inseparable link between the doctrine and the living praxis of the Church. For this reason it proposes to submit its reflections in three stages:

1. an analysis of the contemporary anthropological situation of (the sacrament of) penance in relation to the present crisis of man

2. the biblical, historical, and dogmatic foundations of the doctrine of (the sacrament of) penance

3. reflections on some important questions of the doctrine and the praxis of (the sacrament of) penance


I. The Essence of Penance from an Anthropological Point of View

1. Guilt and sin, penance and conversion, are found everywhere among men. They are to be found in all religions and cultures, even if they have taken different forms in the course of history. The call to penance and the message of the Old and New Testaments concerning reconciliation given by God presuppose these universal human phenomena and purify and transcend them.

In the understanding of the Bible, conversion and penance are man’s answer to God’s offer of a reconciliation, rendered possible and conveyed by God’s grace. Penance is, therefore, at the same time a gift of God and a free, morally responsible act of man (actus humanus), in which man as the responsible subject avows his evil acts but at the same time changes his life by a personal decision and gives it a new direction to God. It follows from this union of the divine and human in the act of penance that pastoral efforts in favor of a renewal of the penitential attitude and of the sacrament of penance must take, necessarily, the anthropological element into account, i.e., the economic, sociological, psychological, and spiritual presuppositions of penance.

2. The contemporary crisis in the understanding and praxis of penance is concerned neither exclusively nor always primarily with dogmatic, disciplinary, and pastoral questions of detail. In large areas of the present world a loss of the sense of sin, and hence of penance, has occurred. This situation has many causes. We should, in the first case, draw attention to causes that are internal to the Church. Because of the way in which it was practiced in the Church until the recent past, many Christians felt hat it was void of meaning and efficacy from the human point of view. he practice of penance as it is has, in many cases, hardly anything to do with the life of man and the dramatic situation of the present day.

To this a more extraecclesial aspect must be added. The present crisis of penance is, in the last analysis, rooted in a crisis of modern man, in particular of man influenced by the ideas of Western civilization, and by the way in which he understands himself to the exclusion of any realization of sin and guilt in his life. Nowadays guilt and sin are very often no longer understood as an original element of man’s personal responsibility but as secondary phenomena, derived from nature, culture, society, history, circumstances, the unconscious, etc. They are therefore to be explained as an ideology or as an illusion. In this way personal conscience has been weakened, and the often unconscious influences of the social norms of a largely de-Christianized world have become stronger.

3. The renewal of the anthropological presuppositions of penance must therefore begin with the renewal of the understanding of man as a morally and religiously responsible person. The personal dignity of man consists in his human liberty, which entails the possibility of becoming guilty, a truth that must be restressed. The task of realizing oneself is part of being human. Basic to the notion of the primacy of the person over things is the idea that man is not only an object of anonymous physiological, economic, social, and cultural forces but is also a free, responsible subject, who is himself the cause of tensions, disruptions, and alienations in the world. It follows that where sin and guilt are no longer basically acknowledged, something essentially human is endangered in man.

4. The unconditional dignity of man as a person is based, in the last analysis, on his relation to God, on his likeness to God, and on his being called by grace to enter into communion with God. For this reason man himself remains an unsolved problem to which only God can give the full and completely certain answer; yes, God and communion with God are the answers to the problem that man not only has but also is in his innermost self (GS 21). Therefore, the renewal of man and of the awareness of his personal dignity must begin with conversion to God and the renewal of community with him. Conversely, when the Church calls man a convert to God it is a “sign and protection of the transcendence of the human person” (GS 76).

II. Anthropological Dimensions of Penance

1. The human person is essentially linked to a body This implies dependence on physiological, economic, sociological, cultural, and psychological conditions. In addition, man’s guilt and sins express themselves in the organizations and structures created by man and by society In their turn these organizations and structures exercise a profound influence on people living in them, render the exercise of liberty more difficult, and may even be an invitation to sin. Structures that come from sin and are marked by it may have an alienating and destructive influence on man. Nevertheless, despite the weight of their influence on the personal conduct of individuals we can, at the most, speak of “sinful structures” and “structural sin” only in an analogous sense. In the proper sense of the term only man is capable of sin. However, because these structures are the product of sin and can again become an occasion of sin, and even invite to sin, penance and conversion, whenever possible, must work for a change in these structures. Such changes presuppose personal conversion and must be brought about by means that agree with and that lead to reconciliation.

The question of how this can be brought about depends on the position and the possibilities of the individual in a given society. Large sections of mankind nowadays are forced to accept a whole world of suffering and penance because of evil structures in the economic, social, and political fields. The attempt to escape from these structures entails for many a renouncing of possessions or positions; this can also be a penitential experience. The attempt to palliate or remove evil structures may even lead to great sacrifices and persecution, which must then be borne in a spirit of penance.

In these different ways it becomes clear to us that confession and penance must, of necessity, have a bodily and worldly dimension and lead to bodily fruits of penance. By such a conversion of the entire person to God, the return and homecoming of all reality to God take place.

2. Corporeal and social dimensions must be borne in mind equally in the human person. Hence, conversion to God is irrevocably connected with conversion to one’s brother. For God is the Father of all men. Through him and under him all men make up one family Conversion is, for that reason, only authentic when it includes the implementation of the exigencies of justice and the struggle for a just order, for peace and justice. Reconciliation with God must lead to reconciliation with our brethren and must contribute to the establishment of a communion of love for which the Church is the sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument. Conversion to God, however, has not only social consequences but also social presuppositions. Only those who experience love can open themselves in love for God and for their neighbors. Therefore, penance should not be understood as a mere private and innermost attitude. Because (not “although”) it is a personal act, it also has a social dimension. This point of view is also of importance for the justification of the ecclesial and sacramental aspects of penance.

3. Man is a being who lives in time and history. He can only find his own identity when he avows his sinful past and opens himself to a new future. Sin may indeed be understood as an incurvatio hominis or as amor curvus. Conversion consists in man giving up this egotistical, stifling concentration on himself and opening up to God and his fellowmen. Both things take place in the confession of guilt. Here man confesses his sinful past as his own, by opening himself up before God and before man, saying what he has on his mind, so that he may reach a fresh future in the community with God and with his brethren. From the anthropological point of view such an avowal is already an essential element of penance, and already at the level of psychical and social life it has a liberating and reconciling effect. The renewal of the sacrament of penance can take this anthropological insight as its starting point and in this way render personal confession of sins understandable again. It may, and should, learn also from these anthropological insights and conceive the sacrament of penance more clearly as a sacrament with a dialogue structure and realize it as such in practice.

4. Wherever men convert themselves in this way, do penance and confess their guilt, they touch upon the deepest secret of the person, which in its turn refers to the secret of God. Wherever this happens, by way of anticipation, man’s hope is fulfilled in the ultimate meaning and in the eschatological reconciliation of the world, which in its plenitude has been given and revealed to us only through Jesus Christ. Because penance in its general human and religious form anticipates in a fragmentary way what is given by Jesus Christ to those who believe, it may be designated as a sacramentum legis naturae (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In IV Sent. 22, q. 2, a. 3).


I. The Theological Foundations

1. The message of the Old and New Testaments, which surpasses by far all human expectations, is intrinsically theocentric. Its object is that the divine being of God and his glory are revealed, that his Kingdom comes, that his will be done, and his name be hallowed (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2). Correspondingly, the Decalogue begins with these words: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex 20:2; Deut 5:6). The demand that man give himself wholly to God and to his fellowmen acquires with Jesus a new height and depth of content and also an intensity that surpass those of the Old Testament (cf. Mt 12:29-31 par.).

By contrast, sin is the attitude and act of a man who does not acknowledge God and his Kingdom. For this reason it is described in holy Scripture as disobedience, as idolatry, and as the willful autonomy of man carried to an extreme. Because of such an aversion from God and an inordinate conversion to created things and values, man ultimately misses the truth that he is a creature; he is alienated from himself (cf. Rom l:21ff.). By returning again to God in conversion, he also finds again the meaning of his own existence.

2. The Old Testament idea of God is determined by the idea of Covenant. God is described as a loving bridegroom, a bountiful father; he is dives in misericordia, always intent on forgiveness and reconciliation, always ready to renew his Covenant. It is also true that Gods wrath is a reality. It shows that in his love God allows himself to be affected because of the evil in the world and that he reacts against injustice and lies. In this perspective sin is described as breaking the Covenant, and it is compared to adultery.

But finally, already in the prophets, hope in the grace and faithfulness of God is the first and last word. Radical demands and a call to conversion are wholly and definitively embedded in Jesus’ message of salvation (Lk 6:35). With him the Gospel has an absolute priority over the law. This does not mean that there are no longer any moral demands. Rather, the moral demands and call to conversion that Jesus makes can be understood and realized only in the framework of his joyous message. Man’s conversion and total surrender are only made possible by the promise of God’s love and his prevenient will to forgive, which make man free and encourage him. Conversion and penance, therefore, are no mere human efforts but a gift of grace. For in his own attempts at conversion man is always conditioned by sin and injustice and by a lack of peace, freedom, and reconciliation. Only God can heal man in his innermost self and grant him a qualitatively new start by giving him a new heart (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26). It is not that we reconcile ourselves with God; it is God who through Christ reconciles us to him (2 Cor 5:8).

3. Neither sin nor the conversion of man is understood in an individualistic way in the Old and New Testaments. On the contrary, and especially with the prophets, sins against social justice are condemned by God in the name of the Covenant. The Old and New Testaments consider man in solidarity with his people and with the whole of mankind (cf. Gen 3; Rom 5), that is, in solidarity with the new people of God. On the other hand, the prophets of the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ had already discovered man’s personal responsibility as an individual.

Conversion to Jesus Christ calls the individual away from his attachment to his own people in order to insert him into the new people of God, which embraces all peoples. More particularly, the grace of conversion requires a triple answer from man: in the first place, a real change of heart, a new spirit and intention, are necessary. Conversion and penance are a fundamental option (cf. on this point C, III, 3f.) of the person directed toward God, as well as a complete renunciation of sin.

In the second place, Jeremiah expected the sinner to confess his guilt publicly and to promise to correct his conduct “before Yahweh” (Jer 36:5-7). According to Jesus, well-intentioned, confident faith (cf. Mk 1:15), contrite confession, and prayer for pardon are likewise the beginning of conversion and the starting point of a change of life (cf. Lk 11:4; cf. 18:10-14).

Finally, penance should express itself in a radical revolution of one’s entire life and in all its areas. The fulfillment of justice and readiness to forgive one s neighbor belong above all to this (cf. Mt 18:21-35; Lk 17:4).

II. Christological Foundations

1. The Old Testament already looks forward to the New Covenant in which God gives man a new heart and a new spirit (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 36:26f). Isaiah expects the “servant of God” (Is 53), Malachi the “angel of the Covenant” (Mai 3:1). Jesus knows that the salvation of the coming Kingdom of God is already present in his own existence (Lk 10:23f). Hence, according to him the center of the demand for conversion consists in accepting, in faith and as a child, salvation that is already promised (Mk 10:15), in converting oneself to him in belief (Lk 12:8ff.), in the hearing and keeping of his word (Lk 10:38-42; ll:27f), and in following him (cf. Mt 8:19f, 21f).

Conversion, therefore, now also consists in decision for Jesus, in which the coming Kingdom of God is at the same time decided on. But Jesus must have realized from the very start that in his demand he was asking too much from his disciples and hearers, and that, from a human point of view, he would fail, just like the prophets and the Baptist. But in his confidence in God his Father he could nevertheless carry on with his message and connect it, probably from the very beginning, with the thought of his suffering (cf. Mk 12:1-12). In baptism we die as Jesus died on the Cross, and this is the fundamental basis of all Christian penance.

2. The New Testament denotes the Cross of Jesus Christ with concepts such as vicarious representation, sacrifice, atonement. All these concepts are nowadays poorly understood by a great number of people and hence must be carefully deciphered and interpreted. In an introductory and preparatory way this can be done by pointing to the solidarity itself of human life: the being, deeds, and omissions of the other and the others affect the individual in his own being and doing. In this way, a new understanding can be reached of the fact that by his obedience and his self-surrender “for the many”, Jesus Christ’s work of redemption becomes fully understandable only if one adds to this that in Jesus Christ God himself has entered into the condition humana. In this way, through the Person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself (cf. 2 Cor 5:14, 17). Redemption from sin, otherwise known as the forgiveness of sin, takes place therefore by means of the admirabile commercium. God has made “the sinless one into sin so that in him we might become the justice of God” (2 Cor 5:21; cf. Rom 8:3f; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24). “In the human nature united to himself the Son of God, by overcoming death through his own death and Resurrection, redeemed man and changed him into a new creation” (LG 7). “By the very fact that human nature was assumed, not absorbed in him, it has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond comparison. For by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man” (GS 22; cf. International Theological Commission, “Select Questions on Christology” [1979]1).

3. Christian penance is a participation in the suffering and death of Christ. This comes about per fidem et caritatem et per fidei sacramenta (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, q. 49, a. 3 ad 6). Christian penance has its foundation in baptism, which is the sacrament of conversion for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and the sacrament of faith. Therefore, it should have a determining influence on the entire Christian life (cf. Rom 6:3ff.).

Christian penance must therefore not be understood in the first place as an ethical and ascetic event but as basically sacramental, viz., the gift of a new existence, granted by God, which also urges ethical and ascetical practice. It should not only take place in individual acts, but it should also characterize the entire Christian life. In this statement the justified concern of Luther’s first thesis on indulgences, 31 October 1517, is also intimated. As a matter of fact, penance should not be reduced by being considered in a personal isolation. Following Jesus as it does, it must be understood both as obedience to the Father and as a vicarious service for the others and for the world.

III. The Ecclesial Foundations

1. The work of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ remains a living reality present to us through the action of the Holy Spirit and acquires its encompassing fulfillment in the community of the faithful. This does not mean that through the action of the Holy Spirit reconciliation may not also take place outside of the boundaries of the Church.

Nevertheless, the Church is, in Jesus Christ, the sacramental sign of forgiveness and reconciliation for the entire world. It is this in a threefold way: (a) it is the Church of the poor, of the suffering, and of those deprived of their rights. It strives to alleviate their needs and to serve Jesus Christ in them; (b) it is the Church of sinners, which is at the same time holy and has to go the road of conversion and renewal; (c) it is the persecuted Church, which “presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God” (LG 8).

Thus the Church lives a life based on the pardon of God in Jesus Christ. It is not only the sign of this reconciliation but also its efficacious instrument in the world (cf. LG 11). It is this also by preaching and mediating the reconciliation that God has granted us in Jesus Christ. It does so by the word of penance and reconciliation, by the sacrament of penance, and by its entire ministry of reconciliation.

2. The Church can only be the sacramental sign of reconciliation for the world when and if the word and the ministry of reconciliation are alive in it. According to the example of the God who reconciles, the fraternal community of the faithful also implies willingness to forgive (cf. Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Lk 17:3f; Mt 18:21f.).

The reconciliation received from God aims at fraternal forgiveness (cf. Mt 5:23f; 6:12, 14f; Mk 11:25f). When the community forgives, the reconciling love of Jesus Christ addresses itself to the sinful brother. Admonition and blame (cf. Mt 18:15f.) are meant to save the brother whose salvation is endangered. This care for the erring brother must be untiring and the readiness to forgive unlimited (cf. Mt 18:21).

The seriousness of God’s offer of salvation requires that another aspect be considered. By sin the Church itself is wounded, precisely as the sign of the reconciliation between God and men, and between men among themselves. For this reason faults against the worship of God and offenses against fraternal love are intimately connected. The judgment comprises both aspects, as is shown by the way Jesus identifies himself with the humblest of his brothers (cf. Mt 25:40-45). Hence the Church itself must time and time again be purified from evil and take the road of conversion and renewal (LG 8). Thus conversion to God is at the same time a movement toward our brothers and reconciliation with the ecclesial community. He who converts himself must go over the road along which reconciliation first came to him. Ecclesiae caritas quae per Spiritum Sanctum diffunditur in cordibus vestris, participum suorum peccata dimittit (St. Augustine, In Evang. Ioan. 121, 4). Thus there is no forgiveness of faults without the Church. Reconciliation with the Church and reconciliation with God cannot be separated from one another.

3. Despite its admonitions to forgive without limit, the New Testament does not discount the possibility of serious offenses against Christian love toward God and one’s neighbors. Here a praxis of reconciliation in stages becomes visible: obtaining the favor of the brother, admonition, correction, strong language, exclusion (cf. Mt 18:15-20; also 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:10-13). Here stubbornness and persistence in a particular wrong attitude are very important criteria for the seriousness of the fault. A measure of exclusion can become unavoidable for the sake of the health of the community.

4. The power to forgive sins, which Jesus possesses (cf. Mk 2:1-12), is also given “to men” (Mt 9:8). In certain passages of the New Testament it is the Church as a whole which in this regard stands in the limelight, although it is indicated that it has ministries and that there are different offices. Even if in a few texts the group of persons to which a task is assigned cannot be fully ascertained (cf. Mt 18:15-20; Jn 20:22f), the general duty to reconciliation (cf. Mt 5:23f.) is nevertheless distinguished from the general ministerial power to forgive or to retain sins.

The word and the ministry of reconciliation are indeed committed in a special way to the apostolic ministry in the Church. This ministry stands in the place of Christ, and through it we hear God (2 Cor 5:20; cf. 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:10-13). Here the relation with the encompassing power to teach and to direct, granted to Peter, is important (cf. Mt 16:18f). Precisely with regard to sins that exclude from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9f; Gal 5:20f; Eph 5:5; Rev 21:8, 22:15; cf. Heb 6:4-6; 10:26f; 1 Jn 5:16; Mt 12:31f.), the full power to forgive or to retain sins cannot but be granted to him to whom the keys of the Kingdom of heaven have been given.

A fundamental transgression against God and the Church can only be over-come by an unmistakable, authentic word of forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ and on his authority (auctoritas). The specific power required for this was given by Jesus to the ministry, which presides with authority over the Church and to which the ministry of unity has also been committed.

Through this authorized ministry instituted by Jesus Christ, God himself accomplishes the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23). In accordance with what Christ established, God forgives through the Holy Spirit when the Church absolves from sins by her official ministers. This structure of the sacrament of penance became ever clearer to the Church when in the course of its history it kept reflecting on the meaning of holy Scripture (cf. the importance of Mt 16:19 and 18:18 in Tertullian, De pudicitia 21, 9ff.; Origen, De oratione 28, on Jn 20:23), and it was declared final and binding by the Council of Trent (cf. the reference to Jn 20:23 in DS 1670, 1679, 1684, 1692, 1703). The Second Vatican Council moved the ecclesial aspect of penance once more to the foreground (LG 11; cf. also the revised Ordo paenitentiae).

Summing up we must therefore say: The exclusion (excommunicatio = to bind) from the community of the Church, the universale salutis sacramentum, is valid in heaven (before God), and means the exclusion from the sacraments of salvation, in particular from the Eucharist. Readmission (reconciliatio = to absolve) to the full communion with the Church (= the Communion of the Eucharist) is at the same time reconciliation with God (forgiveness of sins). Thus in sacramental penance the readmission to full sacramental Communion with the Church is the sacramental sign (res et sacramentum) of the renewed communion with God (res sacramenti). This idea the early Church had of the sacrament of penance should again be urged more clearly on the mind of the Church by preaching and catechesis.

5. Penance must be seen in an organic relationship with the other sacraments. In the first place it is present in all as the word of reconciliation in the comprehensive teaching of the Church. A central witness to this is the Article in the Creed: “I believe ... in the forgiveness of sins.”

Forgiveness shows itself in the conversion, by which the believer turns away from his previous sinful life, converts himself with all his heart to God, who by the remission of his sins liberates him from his situation without grace and opens a new life for him in the Spirit. This conversion basically takes place by faith and baptism. In baptism the gift of the Spirit is sealed; the believer becomes a member of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Therefore baptism also remains the basis for the forgiveness of later sins. The penance of the baptized, which for those born from water and the Spirit often appeared to be wholly impossible and in the early Church was felt to be possible only once, requires not only—as in baptism— sincere contrition as a disposition to forgiveness but also the firm will to mend one’s life. Expiation is also involved, as well as confession before the Church represented by its official ministers. Although it “refers back to baptism, penance is a sacrament of its own with a sacramental sign of its own and a special effect. According to its innermost nature it As a complement of baptism (c£ the classical expressions paenitentia secunda: Tertullian, De paenitentia 7, 10; secunda planca salutis: De paenitentia 4, 2; 12, 9, quoted in DS 1542; laboriosus quidam baptismus: Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 39, 17, quoted in DS 1672).

As a second baptism the sacrament of penance is at the same time presupposed for receiving the other sacraments (cf. Richard of St. Victor, De potestate ligandi et solvendi 21). This applies in particular to the Eucharist, which is the culminating point of the spiritual life of the Church and of the individual faithful (LG 11). The “anointing of the sick” has already from the beginning of the Church a relationship with the forgiveness of sins (cf. Jas 5:15; furthermore DS 1695f., 1699, 1716). “Hoc sacramentum praebet etiam, si necesse est, veniam peccatorum et consummationen paenitentiae christianae” (Ordo unctionis infirmorum, Praenotandam, no. 6, with a reference to DS 1694, 1696).

At the approach of the end of mans pilgrimage, or at least in the case of a serious physical threat to his life, the anointing of the sick is a particular form of the renewal of baptism. All this shows the close connection between baptism, penance and anointing of the sick and their relationship with the Eucharist, which is the center of the sacramental life of the Church.

IV. Foundations in the Light of the History of Dogma and of Theology

a. Nonvariables in the Historical Development

1. The essential structure of the sacrament of penance is already attested in the apostolic and postapostolic Church. A particular, although not exclusive, importance attaches to the expression “binding and loosing” of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, as well as to its variant in John 20:23 (cf. above, B, III, 4). The essence of this sacrament, therefore, consists in the fact that the reconciliation of the sinner with God takes place by the reconciliation with the Church.

Correspondingly, the sign of the sacrament of penance consists in a dual process: on the one hand, in the human acts of a conversion inspired by love (contritio and conversio), external confession, [and] satisfaction (satisfactio). This is the anthropological dimension. On the other hand, it consists in the fact that the ecclesial community, under the direction of the bishop and the priest, offers forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ, establishing the necessary forms of satisfaction, prays for the sinner, and does penance with him vicariously, so as to absolve him finally and to pronounce his full belonging to the ecclesial community. This is the ecclesial dimension.

2. In the historical development of the sacrament of penance the decisive process consists in that the personal character of this sacrament was ever better acknowledged and expressed. In this process of personalization, the living Tradition of the Church has carried on and brought to completion the evolution that had already established itself in the Old Testament and in the passage from the Old to the New Testament, and made it in a profound way her very own (cf. above, B, I, 3). Since this basic orientation of the biblical testimony has found expression in the universal consensus of the Church, it is now irreversible. This also had the effect, it is true, of pushing the ecclesial dimension of the sacrament of penance into the background of consciousness for a long time. In our century this community aspect of penance has been rediscovered. The Second Vatican Council and the new Ordo paenitentiae have taken up this insight. Yet it should have still deeper roots in the awareness of the faithful so that we may reach again an objective balance of both aspects of penance.

To carry out this pastoral task correctly in our own time, a more through-going knowledge of the history of the sacrament of penance is required. This will show, in addition to the permanence of the essential elements, a variation that cannot be ignored. And in this way it also points to the freedom the Church today has— “salva eorum substantia” (DS 1728; cf. 3857)—in the renewal of the sacrament of penance.

b. Variables in the Historical Development

1. Reconciliation in the Church has always been related to two different situations of Christian life: on the one hand, the realization that we live a life based on and given in baptism imposes on us a continuous struggle against daily sins. On the other hand, the praxis of penance should bring back to a life of grace and return the rights of baptism to those who violated the seal of baptism by sins that lead to death and that are irreconcilable with Christian existence.

In the early Church everyday sins were forgiven by liturgical prayers in which the entire community participated, in particular during the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday; in addition, many other forms of penance had their importance (cf. below, C, I, 3). In the proper sense of the term, the discipline of penance in the early Church was concerned with the second situation. In the transition from public to private penance, the sacrament, which was now administered repeatedly, was more and more extended from mortal to venial sins. One single form of the sacrament now related to the two different situations of the Christian life mentioned above.

2. That form of the confession of sins, which is tied to spiritual direction, is a very ancient treasure of the Church. On the one hand, it belongs to the very structure of the sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ. On the other hand, as can be seen in the monastic and spiritual traditions, it also has a place outside the sacrament. Both these data are factors in the development that is guided by the spiritual experience of the Church. At the end of the period of the primitive Church, in the early and high Middle Ages, this led to a growing desire for private confessions of one’s sins; spiritual direction and sacramental confession became increasingly connected with each other.

3. The Church has shown that it enjoys a wide margin of freedom with regard to the discipline and the pastoral aspects of reconciliation, in that it attempted to shape the discipline of its sacraments—the basic structure of which is unchangeable—in accordance with the needs of the Christian people and for the benefit of the ministry to the faithful. The most conspicuous change has been the passing from the predominance of public penance to the prevalence of private penance.

Because of the difficulties and the disaffection attaching to the more ancient practice, the Church, at a time of change in the area of secular living, arrived at a renewed discipline, which was not possible without drawbacks and conflicts. This made the sacrament more attractive and gave it a form that proved more fruitful. This new form of the sacrament also led to a change in the order of the acts of penance: originally reconciliation was granted only after the imposed satisfaction had been carried out; now the absolution was given immediately after the confession of sins.

4. Moreover, the Church passed from a discipline that knew certain cases of unforgivable sins, that is, of lifelong penance, to a discipline under which all sins are forgiven. Furthermore, there was a transition from the practice of administering penance once only to a penance that could be repeated; from the imposition of very severe penances that extended over a long spell of time to lighter penance; from a penance that was originally mainly public, which corresponded to public sins, to private penance; from reconciliation reserved to the bishop to absolution granted by the priest; from the deprecatory to the indicative formula of absolution.

5. The form of the acts of the penitent was also subject to a noteworthy change. It often happened that one of these was emphasized so much that others were relegated to the background. Public penance in the primitive Church stood under the sign of public satisfaction, which lasted for a set period of time; private penance in the Middle Ages and in the modern period, on the other hand, underlined the importance of contrition; in our own time the accent is more on confession. Since this confession often concerns less serious sins, the sacrament of penance in many cases took the form of a “cheap sacrament”. “Confession”, “contrition”, and satisfaction must be considered once more, therefore, in their intrinsic relationship.

c. The Doctrine of the Council of Trent

1. The doctrinal statement of the Council of Trent on the sacrament of penance (DS 1667-93, 1701-15) must be understood as an answer to certain precise questions that were actual in those days in the controversy with the Protestants. This context and this intention are of great importance for the interpretation of the decree of Trent on the sacrament of penance.

In the sixteenth century the questions relating to reconciliation and the sacrament of penance, which were the subject of controversy between Catholics and Protestants, were mainly concerned with the following points:

a. the institution by Jesus Christ of penance as a sacrament different from baptism

b. the relation of justifying faith to contrition, to confession, to satisfaction, and to sacramental absolution

c. the obligation to confess all mortal sins, and furthermore the question whether such a confession is possible, whether it is required by God or by the Church, whether it contradicts justification by faith, [and] whether it leads to peace or to a troubled conscience

d. the function of the confessor, in particular whether he is correctly described as the one who announces the unconditional promise of the pardon of sins by God for the sake of Christ, or whether he must also be designated as a physician, guide of souls, one who established the order of creation, which was disturbed by sin, and a judge

2. In answer to these questions the Council of Trent taught the following points about sacramental confession:

a. It serves the spiritual good and salvation of man, and this without necessarily leading to the disturbance of conscience: on the contrary, the fruit of this sacrament is frequently peace of joy of conscience, and comfort of the soul (DS 1674, 1682).

b. Confession is a necessary part of the sacrament of penance, and it is not right to reduce the sacrament simply to announcing an unconditional promise of God’s forgiveness through the merits of Christ (DS 1679, 1706, 1709).

c. Confession must be clear and unambiguous where there is question of mortal sins; this obligation does not exist in the case where it is impossible to remember one’s sins (DS 1682, 1707).

d. The integral confession of mortal sins is required by God’s saving will (iure divino), in order that the Church can exercise through the sacred ministry the task of a judge, a physician, a director of souls, and that of reestablishing the order of creation disrupted by sin (DS 1679, 1680, 1685, 1692, 1707).

3. Despite the differences concerning the necessity of the confession of all mortal sins, there is a noteworthy consensus between the Council of Trent (DS 1680, 1682) and the basic writings of the Lutheran confession with regard to the spiritual fruits of the confession of sins and of absolution. This is important in the ecumenical dialogue and can be a point of departure for discussions on differences that still remain.

4. Despite contemporary cultural pluralism, there are lasting real needs common to all men and to which the manifold aid coming to man by God’s pity from the sacrament of penance provides even today the best answer:

a. healing of spiritual diseases

b. growth in one’s personal spiritual life

c. being an occasion for the reestablishment of the order disturbed by sin, and for promoting justice, as this is demanded by the social nature of both sin and forgiveness

d. the effective attribution of the forgiveness of sins by God and by the Church in a time in which there often is enmity between men and among nations

e. placing one’s sins and state of mind before the judgment of the Church, which by its pastoral ministry watches over the authenticity of conversion to God and to the Church

5. Since these human and spiritual needs are real and in the sacrament of penance means of salvation answering to them have been given by God, the confession of grave sins, which, after a careful examination of his conscience, the sinner remembers, must have in virtue of God’s saving will (iure divino) an indispensable place in obtaining the absolution. If not, the Church cannot accomplish the tasks assigned to it by Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (iure divino), viz., the service of a physician, direction of souls, the advocacy of justice and love in private as well as in public life, heralding the divine promises of forgiveness and peace in a world often dominated by sin and animosity, a judgment of the authenticity of the conversion to God and to the Church.

6. The integral confession of mortal sins, therefore, necessarily belongs to the sacrament of penance (iure divino), and thus it is not left to the judgment of the individual or to the decision of the Church. However, the Council of Trent does acknowledge the concept of a sacramental confession in voto (DS 1543). For this reason, in extraordinary emergency situations in which such an integral confession is not possible, the Church can allow the postponement of the confession and grant the absolution individually or in a group (general absolution), without previous confession. In such a situation the Church acts with the spiritual possibilities of the moment, but must see to it that mortal sins are confessed subsequently and must instruct the faithful about this obligation by appropriate means. The Council of Trent does not itself pronounce on the nature and extent of these emergency situations.

To solve difficult pastoral problems the extension, recommended by many, of the situations mentioned in the Normae pastorales of 1972 and in the Ordo paenitentiae is not the only possible solution. For situations in which there is no copia confessorum (DS 1661) the Council rather points to the efficacy of contrition for reconciliation, made perfect by love (conditio), which grants reconciliation with God when it includes the votum sacramenti and hence the votum confessionis (DS 1677). How the Church should proceed in this matter concretely on the basis of the doctrine of the Council of Trent is a question of pastoral prudence and love (cf. on this below, C, II, 4).


I. Unity and Diversity of the Forms of Penance

1. There are certain forms of penance in pre- and extrabiblical religion. They attest the presence in humanity of a primitive knowledge about guilt and the need of redemption. The Christian message of penance and reconciliation presupposes that once and for all penance and satisfaction have been made by Jesus Christ in the obedient ministry of his life and death on the Cross. Christian penance, therefore, is chiefly distinguished from the practice of penance in other religions by the fact that it lets itself be determined by the Spirit of Jesus Christ and brings it to expression under the signs of the personal attitude of penance and in bodily works of penance.

For this reason the Christian forms of penance must be animated at least inchoately and in nucleo by faith, hope, and love. Faith above all is the ground, the permanent center, and the principle of life for Christian penance. Hope gives the converted the firm confidence that he may proceed with God s help on the road of conversion and so attain eschatological salvation. Connected with this is the so-called gradualism of the character of penance: it may start with “lower” motivations: fear of punishment, fear of Gods judgment, etc. (cf. DS 1526, 1678), and from these ascend to the “higher” motivations.

Love of God and of one’s neighbor is the deepest motive for repentance for the baptized, for his conversion, and for his passage to a new life (DS 1526, 1676). From this comes a new way of living in community with God and with ones fellowmen (cf. above all A, II, 2f.; B, HI, 2, 4).

2. Although the forms of Christian penance and of forgiveness of sins are many, there is, despite this pluriformity, a structural unity of the entire process: insight into one’s personal guilt or into that of the community, repentance for what has been done or omitted, confession of ones guilt, willingness to change ones life (including, where possible, a basically necessary reparation for inflicted damage), prayer for forgiveness, [and] reception of the gift of reconciliation (absolution). The praxis of confession, therefore, is, in the several forms of penance, a dynamic process with a coherent structure. The pastoral education for and the catechesis of reconciliation must consequently keep in mind the whole as well as the balance of individual elements.

3. Penance, although one, unfolds itself in a variety of ways. Holy Scripture and the Fathers stress the three basic forms that go together: fasting, praying, and charity (Tob 12:8, referred to in DS 1543). Origen (Hom. in Lev. 2, 4) and Cassian (Coll. patrum 20, 8) present more detailed lists of forms of the forgiving of sins. Besides the effects of the grace of baptism and the suffering of martyrdom, which are fundamental, they mention among others, reconciliation with one’s brother, the tears of penance, care for the salvation of ones neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and love.

In the living Tradition of the Church, the reading of holy Scripture and the recital of the Our Father are added to this. We should, however, also mention the factual conversion in one’s daily life, inspired by faith, for instance, the change of attitude and mentality, speaking with others in a community on guilt and sin, gestures of reconciliation, correctio fraterna, [and] a confession in view of reconciliation; certain forms of spiritual direction are of the nature to redeem sins, as for instance the révision de vie, the capitulum culpae, a talk with ones spiritual director, [and] confession to staretz in connection with monastic practice. The ethical consequences of a new direction of life should not be forgotten: a change in ones living style, asceticism and manifold renouncement, acts of charity, works of mercy, expiation, and vicarious suffering.

The liturgical forms of the forgiveness of sins consist not only in penitential celebrations but also in meditation and prayer, the intercession of the Church, and the Liturgy of the Hours, in reading the meditation of holy Scripture, and in the celebration of the Eucharist (cf. DS 1743 and below, C, IV, 1). In addition to the specifically sacramental forms of forgiveness of sins (cf. the three celebrations in the Ordo paenitentiae), the three ways of carrying out remission in the present discipline of penance should also be recalled (cf. the absolutio a censuris and the dispensatio ab irregularitae in the Ordo paenitentiae, appendix 1). The times and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year are more particular occasions on which the Church performs the ministry of penance.

II. Individual Confessions, Reconciliation Services, General Absolution

1. Awareness of the wealth and multiplicity of the forms of penance has often grown dim. It must therefore be made stronger and receive attention both in preaching and in the pastoral practice of penance. Isolating the sacrament of penance from the context of the entire Christian life, which is inspired by the spirit of reconciliation, leads to an atrophy of the sacrament itself. Narrowing down the ministry of reconciliation to only a few forms can make one coresponsible for the crisis in the sacrament of penance and the well-known dangers of ritualism, and of a reduction to the state of a private exercise of piety.

The various means of reconciliation should, therefore, not be placed in competition with each other. Rather, the intrinsic unity and dynamic relationship between the individual forms of penance should be explained and made visible. The forms mentioned above (cf. C, I, 3) are shown above all to be useful for “venial sins”. Forgiveness of sins can indeed be granted in many ways: forgiveness of the sins of everyday life is always given when contrition informed by love is present (contritio) (cf. DS 1677).

2. To the extent that the forms of penance mentioned above and the dimensions of reconciliation are practiced more clearly and in a more convincing way in the daily life of the Christian, the desire for sacramental private confession is also bound to increase. Above all grave sins must be expressed in the most individual and comprehensive way possible before the Church and its official representatives. A general confession of sins is not sufficient, because the sinner must, inasmuch as possible, give concrete expression to the truth of his guilt and the nature of his sins, and also because such an individual, personal confession of guilt strengthens and deepens true contrition. Both anthropological (A, II, 3) and theological (B, III, 4; B, IV, c, 2 and 5f.) considerations favor this thesis.

Sacramental power is needed to forgive such sins. It is true that today the authentic form of private confession needs to be profoundly renewed in its spiritual aspects, and this in connection with the revised Ordo paenitentiae. Without such a renewal the Church will not be able to cope with the crisis of the sacrament of penance. For this a better spiritual and theological formation of priests is required, in order that they may be able to deal with what is now demanded from confession, viz., the latter should contain more elements of spiritual direction and of fraternal exchange. Under this aspect the so-called confession of devotion retains its importance.

3. The term celebrationes paenitentiales is often understood in different ways. Among such penitential celebrations one thinks principally of the liturgical celebrations of a congregation in which the call to penance and the promise of reconciliation are given expression, and a general confession of sins takes place without individual confession or an individual or general absolution. This type of penitential celebration can help place the community aspects of sin and forgiveness more to the foreground. They can awaken and deepen the spirit of penance and reconciliation. How ever, they must not be placed on the same level as the sacrament of penance, much less replace it.

In their orientation these penitential celebrations are certainly directed toward sacramental private confession, but they do not merely have the function of inviting to conversion and creating the dispositions required for the sacrament: with regard to daily sins, they can become a true occasion of pardon, provided there is a real spirit of conversion and sufficient contrition (contritio). In this way the celebrationes paenitentiales may acquire an efficacious significance for salvation, even if they are not a sacramental form of penance.

4. The Ordo paenitentiae also mentions a common celebration of reconciliation with a general confession and general absolution. This presupposes ethically and juridically unambiguous norms that must be observed in pastoral work (cf. the Normae pastorales circa absolutionem sacramentalem generali modo impertiendam of 1972, and the Ordo paenitentiae, Pastoral Introduction, 35).

It follows from this that this form of sacramental reconciliation applies to extraordinary situations of emergency As current praxis has occasionally shown, the granting of general absolution outside such extraordinary emergency situations easily leads to basic misunderstandings of a fundamental nature about the essence of the sacrament of penance, and in particular about the basic necessity of personal confession of sins, the efficacy of sacramental absolution, which presupposes contrition, and at least the votum confessionis. This type of misunderstanding and the ensuing abuses damage the spirit of the sacrament of reconciliation.

The difficult and even somewhat dramatic pastoral situations in many parts of the Church today mean that many faithful hardly have the possibility of receiving the sacrament of penance. In these critical situations it is indispensable to show the faithful concerned ways that will enable them to have access to the forgiveness of sins and to receiving the Eucharist. In these cases the Tradition of the Church, confirmed by the Council of Trent, acknowledges the possibility of a Christian obtaining the forgiveness of grave sin by perfect contrition. According to the same Tradition perfect contrition also always implies the desire (votum) of receiving the sacrament of penance as soon as possible (DS 1677).

Where there is no copia confessorum, such a perfect contrition is probably a sufficient disposition for receiving the Eucharist, according to the doctrine of the Council of Trent (DS 1661; cf. above, B, IV, c, 6). In most situations of such pastoral emergency this possibility is more suitable than general absolution, because in this way the obligation to the later personal confession can be made psychologically more understandable to most of the faithful. The ecclesial dimension of such a perfect act of contrition can be expressed by the penitential celebrations we mentioned above.

5. The contemporary crisis of penance and of the sacrament of penance cannot be solved by stressing only one form of penance, but only by means of a view that takes into account the complex relationships between the different forms of penance and how they mutually complement each other. In this matter it will also be important to integrate in a better way the individual forms of penance into the administration of the sacrament of penance, in order to bring sacramental penance more forcefully into the consciousness of the faithful.

III. Sin, Grave Sin, Venial Sins

1. Conversion, as a turning away from sin and a turning to God, presupposes an awareness that sin is outside of and contrary to salvation. The contemporary crisis of the sacrament of penance is intimately connected with a crisis in the sense of and understanding of sin, as can be seen in many parts of the world. The fact that the pastoral efforts of the Church (in sermons, catechesis, personal talks, for example) in many ways have not been as good as they ought also plays a role in this contemporary crisis for a good number of Christians (cf. above, A, I, 2). Therefore it is necessary to express again the authentic, Christian understanding of sin. It is true that holy Scripture does not provide a proper definition of sin, but it nevertheless brings a rich variety of individual statements, which, in many ways, and with regard to different aspects, contain an interpretation of sin. Thus in holy Scripture, among other things, sin is called:

a. being outside of salvation (hamartia): atheism, refusal to acknowledge God (Rom 1:18ff.), a breaking of the alliance with God.

b. opposition to the revealed will of God (anomia): contradiction of the law of God and his Commandments.

c. injustice (adikia): the refusal to live in the justice that God has given.

d. falsehood and darkness (pseudos, skotos): opposition to the truth of God, to Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6), to one s fellowmen, and to the truth of being man. He who sins does not come into the truth of being man. He who sins does not come into the light but remains in darkness (cf. also above, B, I, 1-3).

Against this background it becomes clear that every sin stands in a relationship with God: it is an aversion from God and his will, and it makes created things absolute. The sense and the understanding of sin can only be developed with the conjunction of preaching about God and his message of salvation. For this it is necessary that the sense of God is renewed and deepened. One can understand how it is that only God can forgive sins only if it is made clear that sin stands in a relation to God.

2. Already in the parenesis and the practice of penance of the early Christian communities distinctions concerning the nature of sins were made:

a. sins that exclude from the Kingdom of God, such as leading an immoral life, idolatry, adultery, pederasty, avarice, and so on (cf. 1 Cor 6:9f.), and that also lead to exclusion from the community (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-13) (cf. above, B, III, 4)

b. the so-called daily sins (peccata quotidiana)

The fundamental difference between grave and nongrave sins is taught by the entire Tradition of the Church, even if important differences in terminology and in the appraisal of individual sins occur.

Attempts are often made to replace this division into grave sins and nongrave sins, or to complete it by the threefold distinction between crimina (peccata capitalia), peccata gravia, and peccata venialia. This tripartite division has its justification on the phenomenological and descriptive levels. On the theological level, however, we may not obscure the fundamental distinction between the “Yes” and “No” to God, between the state of grace, life, and communion and friendship with God on the one hand, and the state of sin, aversion from God, on the other hand, which leads to the loss of eternal life. For from the nature of both types of sins it follows that there cannot be a third between them. In this way the traditional dual distinction gives expression to the serious character of man s moral decision.

3. With these distinctions and divisions of the earlier centuries, the Church has already taken into account—each time in the ways of thinking and the forms of expression of a particular period—that which today is of importance in the contemporary insights and circumstances in doctrinal proclamations of the Magisterium and in theological reflection.

a. From the subjective side, the freedom of the human person must be seen from the point of view of its relation to God. Thus at the very center of his being as a person, man has the possibility of saying “No” to God as a basic decision. This then becomes a fundamental decision concerning the meaning of his existence. This fundamental decision takes place in mans heart, in the midst of his personal being. But on the level of man s existence in time and space, it is mediated by concrete acts in which this fundamental decision expresses itself in a more or less complete way. To this must be added that on account of his fractured existence, which was made so by original sin, even while maintaining his fundamental “Yes” to God, man can live with “a divided heart”; i.e., he can live and act without engaging himself fully.

b. From the objective side, there are on the one hand the Commandments that are of grave obligation, with the obligation to an act in which one gives himself entirely, and on the other hand the Commandments that only impose a light obligation. Transgressions of these latter Commandments can ordinarily be called sin in an analogous sense only, but they may nevertheless not be considered insignificant. For even such acts are part of a free decision and can become the expression of a fundamental decision.

4. The Church teaches this theological understanding of grave sin when it speaks about it as a revolt against God, a refusal of God, and a turning of oneself toward created things. It does so when it considers a grave sin that contradicts Christian love or the order of creation willed by God in an important matter, above all in the violation of the dignity of the human person.

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stresses this second aspect in referring to the answer Jesus gave to the young man who asked him: “Master, what must I do to possess eternal life?” Jesus said to him: “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the Commandments.” He said: “Which?’’ Jesus replied: “You must not kill. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not bear false witness. Honor your father and your mother and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 19:16-19) (cf. the Declaration on Some Questions of Sexual Ethics [1975], 10).

In conformity with this doctrine of the Church, the fundamental option determines in the last analysis the moral condition of man. But the concept of fundamental option is not a criterion that allows one to distinguish concretely between grave and venial sins. The concept, rather, is a help to make the nature of grave sin theologically clear. Although basically man can express his option or change it in a single act, viz., in those cases in which this act is done with full awareness and complete freedom, it is not necessary that this fundamental option in its entirety enter into each individual act, so that each sin does not have to be, eo ipso, a revision of an (explicit or implicit) fundamental option.

According to the ecclesiastical and theological Tradition, a grave sin is not so readily possible, and is not what is normal for a Christian who lives in the state of grace and who earnestly takes part in the sacramental life of the Church. The reason for this is the “gravity pull” of grace (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 27, 1 ad 9).

IV. Penance and the Eucharist

1. The question of the relationship between penance and the Eucharist places before us two facts in the Tradition of the Church that seem to contradict each other but that in reality are enriched owing to this tension, a.

a. On the one hand the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and of love for Christians who live in grace. The early Church only admitted to holy Communion Christians who, when they had committed sins that lead to death, had been reconciled after their public penance. For the same reason the Council of Trent demands that he who is aware of having committed a grave sin should not receive holy Communion or celebrate the Mass before having received the sacrament of penance (DS 1647, 1661). However, the Council does not say that this is iure divino; rather, it transposes the obligation to examine oneself to the level of discipline—so as to eat this bread and drink this cup only after having done this (1 Cor 11:28). Therefore, this obligation can admit of an exception, for instance, when there is no copia confessorum; in this case, however, contributors must include the votum sacramenti (cf. above, B, IV, c, 6; II, 4). Nevertheless, the Council does not accept the broader interpretation of Cajetan (DS 1661). Therefore the Eucharist is no alternative to penance in the Church.

b. On the other hand, the Eucharist does forgive sins. The early Church was convinced that the Eucharist forgives daily sins (cf. the testimony of the ancient liturgies). The Council of Trent also speaks of the Eucharist as a “counterpoison by which we are freed from venial faults and are preserved from grave sins” (DS 1638; cf. 1740). The Eucharist grants the forgiveness of grave sins by means of the grace and the gift of penance (DS 1743), which according to the doctrine of the Council includes sacramental confession at least in voto (cf. above, B, IV, c, 6).

This power of the Eucharist to forgive venial sins has its basis in the fact that it is the memoria, i.e., the sacramental representation (repraesentatio) of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which was once and for all, whose blood was to be poured out in forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28) (cf. DS 1743).

2. Confession and Communion of children. The education of the conscience of children to the understanding of sin and penance must take into account their age and their experience. The conscience and experience of adults cannot be simply transplanted. Correspondingly, the confession of children as the sacrament of conversion (metanoia) cannot be considered the end of religious instruction. The child will grow in the living understanding of penance precisely by the practice of the sacraments.


The renewal of the attitude and of the sacrament of conversion and of reconciliation is connected with the message about God, who is rich in pity (Eph 2:4), and above all with the message of reconciliation that God has given once and for all through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This message he keeps permanently present in the Church in the Holy Spirit. The renewal that is conversion and reconciliation only becomes possible, therefore, when we succeed in awakening again the sense of God and in deepening in the Church the spirit of the imitation of Jesus as well as the attitude of faith, hope, and love. The renewal of the sacrament of penance is only possible within the whole made up by the organic structure of all sacraments and forms of penance.

This all-embracing spiritual renewal, which springs up from the heart of the Christian message, includes a renewal of the sense of the personal dignity of man, who by grace is called to community and friendship with God. Only when man converts himself and acknowledges that God is God, and when he lives out of a communion with God, will he discover the true meaning of his own existence. For this reason it is important that in the attempts at a renewal of this sacrament its anthropological dimensions be taken into account, and the inseparable connection between reconciliation with God and reconciliation with the Church and with ones fellowmen is brought about. In this way, in creative faithfulness to the Tradition of the Church, and along the lines of the new Ordo paenitentiae, we can give the sacrament of penance a form that answers to the spiritual needs of man.

Finally, but by no means least in importance, the Church must be by her confession, liturgy, and diakonia the sacrament, that is, the sign and instrument of reconciliation for the world. Through all that which it is and which it believes, it must witness in the Holy Spirit to, and render present, the message of reconciliation that God has given through Jesus Christ.

* This document was approved by the Commission “in forma specifica”.